(This article was originally published on 6 April 2022. It has been republished to mark one year since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. The author is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about international conflict and war.)
(Some visuals might be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.)
“They brought rubber whips to tie my hands, laid me on my stomach, and beat my buttocks till I bled,” says Bilal, a gay man from Afghanistan.
One evening in October 2021, Bilal was staying with a group of friends when armed Taliban members broke into the “safe house”. They forcefully detained him and another person in the middle of the night. The rest of the group managed to escape through the back door.
The Taliban locked them up in a bathroom and left them there until the next morning when the torture began.
“They beat me up with power cables and threw cold water on me and passed electricity through it. These burns you are seeing, are because of this. I passed out of pain,” narrates Bilal.
'Did Someone I Know Give Me Away?'
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August last year has propelled the country into a humanitarian catastrophe.
More than a year later, women are still barred from seeking employment, girl students between Classes 7 and 12 are banned from school, and according to the World Food Programme, 8.7 million people face famine.
In recent weeks, the Taliban has conducted house-to-house searches and forcefully detained activists. One group that has been at the receiving end of torture and increased threats is the LGBTQ+ community.
Life before the fall of Kabul was already dangerous for gay men in Afghanistan under the Ashraf Ghani government, where same-sex relations were punishable with a prison sentence of up to two years.
In its investigation on threats faced by the community after the Taliban’s takeover, Human Rights Watch reported that LGBTQ+ Afghans were “sexually assaulted, or directly threatened by members of the Taliban because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Bilal reveals that there was a "kill list" being circulated to “deal” with LGBTQ+ Afghans – and he was on the list. Having moved from one safe house to another and fleeing towns, it caught him by surprise when the Taliban found out his exact location.
“Did someone I know give me away,” a distraught Bilal asks, adding, “Many of my gay friends were given up to the Taliban by family members or someone they trusted.”
Activist Helps 200 LGBTQ+ Afghans Escape
The race to rescue LGBTQ+ Afghans was ramped up by humanitarian groups. However, challenges in securing travel documents and closure of borders created a hurdle.
Nemat Sadat, a gay Afghan-American activist, has helped more than 200 LGBTQ+ Afghans escape.
Sadat launched a new organisation, Roshaniya, to aid the evacuation of LGBTQ+ Afghans. He currently has 900 members on his list and faces numerous challenges with the Taliban now banning evacuations from its territory.
“The biggest challenges have been funding and humanitarian visas. The people who have had the most difficult time in securing passports are the people in Kabul and Balkh since the passports offices in these two provinces have been closed since the Taliban takeover of the country and the only way to get one is by paying an official a bribe,” Sadat explains.
'Stabbed 20 Times, Left To Die'
One of the evacuated members is Sara, a gay, non-binary Afghan who explains how they were stabbed almost 20 times and left for dead.
On a January morning this year, they were stepping out of the gym when Taliban members surrounded them and stabbed them continuously. They were left on the street to bleed to death.
“I am lucky I’m alive. They stabbed my legs, my waist and continued beating me while they were doing that. There were people around me who didn’t come to help or stop them. I was unconscious and only realised the extent of what happened when I woke up in the hospital.”Sara, a gay, non-binary Afghan
Taking a pause to recollect their thoughts, they add, “I apologise, talking about that day still sends shivers down my spine. I can never forget it.”
After barely recovering from their injuries, Sara reached out to Sadat who raced against time and secured a passport for them. Now in another country, they’re trying to rebuild life, but fear making friends and revealing they’re gay.
“Even back home before the Taliban no one accepted me because of my sexual orientation. Life was always difficult, and I continue to live on the edge,” says Sara.
“LGBT Afghans were also targeted by Daesh, and many were tortured. We were never living in peace. When the Taliban was stabbing me, they told me that I shouldn’t exist, and I have no place in Islam or the right to live.”Sara, on life under the previous government
As Sara strives to rebuild a life in a new country, Bilal is still living under growing threats in Afghanistan.
Recounting his experience, he says, “They tortured me for 20 days and tried to have me confess on camera that I’m gay so they can stone me to death. They would repeat the torture every day and throw me back into the bathroom end of the day. I thought I was dead until one day I struggled to breathe, and they untied my legs.”
Bilal escaped from the bathroom that day and walked towards a nearby village. A family took him in and provided first aid to his deep wounds. Grateful for their help, he explains, “It was 3 am and this family gave me bread and water. They gave me a bed to sleep.”
After staying there for a couple of days, Bilal got in touch with his friends and moved places until one day when he got in touch with Sadat through social media.
Sadat has managed to secure documents for Bilal; however, with the current hold on evacuations, the light at the end of the tunnel is still dim for him and many other LGBTQ+ Afghans.
Concluding our conversation, Bilal asks me to appeal to the world to save the lives of at-risk Afghans or they’ll be killed by the Taliban. “Tell them we exist, we need saving, and we want to survive,” he concludes.